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Doe v. Delta Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

February 25, 2015

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,


PAUL A. ENGELMAYER, District Judge.

Defendant Delta Airlines, Inc. ("Delta") moves for discovery sanctions against plaintiff Jane Doe, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2), based on Doe's violations of multiple orders that the Court issued, directing her to produce certain medical records and releases. Doe opposes the motion for sanctions, contending that her refusal to comply with the Court's orders was justified and, in any event, not in bad faith.

For the reasons set forth below, Delta's motion for monetary sanctions is granted, but its motion for terminating sanctions is denied.

I. Background[1]

A. Factual Background

This sanctions motion arises from a pending lawsuit that Doe (whom the Court has permitted to proceed pseudonymously) has brought against Delta. See Dkt. 1 ("Complaint"). Doe, a New York resident, alleges as follows:

On September 8, 2012, Doe was a first-class passenger on a Delta flight scheduled to leave Reagan National Airport, in Washington, D.C., at 3 p.m., bound for LaGuardia Airport in New York. At about 2:30 p.m., Doe boarded the aircraft. Due to bad weather, the flight was delayed and returned to the boarding gate at about 4:30 p.m. At that time, Doe and the other passengers disembarked, and were told by a Delta gate agent to remain in the immediate vicinity of the gate to facilitate re-boarding when the weather cleared. The agent suggested that the passengers wait at the restaurant next to the boarding gate.

Doe alleges that she went to the restaurant and ordered food and drink. During the 3.5-hour delay, Doe returned to the boarding gate every 20 to 30 minutes to ask about the flight's status. Delta gate agents told her she would have a first-class seat on the next available flight. At about 7 p.m., the passengers from the delayed flight were directed to proceed to a different boarding gate.

Doe alleges that she went to the newly assigned boarding gate, and approached a male Delta gate agent to confirm that passengers from the 3 p.m. flight would have priority in boarding and that that flight's first-class passengers, like her, would retain their first-class seats. According to Doe, the agent rudely responded that he would decide who would be boarded on the next flight. Doe, not wanting to argue with the agent, turned and walked away. As she walked away, the agent grabbed her shoulder from behind, spun her around, and accused Doe of being intoxicated. Doe denied the allegation, directed the agent to talk to the waitress at the restaurant where she had been served dinner, and continued to walk away.

Thereafter, Doe alleges, passengers began boarding the 7 p.m. flight. However, when Doe attempted to board, the male Delta agent told her to stand to the side. Doe complied, and after a few minutes, was told to turn around. Two law enforcement officers were present, and the male Delta agent told the officers, "[T]his is the one, " pointing to Doe. The officers then handcuffed Doe, and led her away from the Delta terminal. Doe alleges that she was arrested and incarcerated for about eight hours before she was released.

B. Relevant Procedural History

On September 6, 2013, Doe filed a Complaint in this Court, claiming false arrest, malicious prosecution, defamation and slander, battery, and negligence. Dkt. 1. On December 5, 2013, Delta answered, stating, among other things, that Doe's own negligence had been a cause of the altercation. Dkt. 7 ("Answer"). Delta also reserved the right to assert additional defenses based on its investigation and discovery. Id. ΒΆ 72.

In December 2013, discovery began. See Dkt. 14. As recounted more fully immediately below, Delta, based on information obtained during Doe's deposition, sought various medical and pharmaceutical records from Doe. Delta also sought executed releases permitting Delta to receive such records from Doe's medical providers. Doe failed to produce the requested medical records and releases, leading the Court to issue a series of six orders, each directing Doe to produce these documents, on an attorneys'-eyes-only basis. These orders, and the circumstances leading to them, are recounted in detail in the following section.

On July 22, 2014, after the Court had issued the third such order, Delta moved for sanctions based on Doe's repeated failure to comply with the Court's orders. Dkt. 55, 57 ("Def. Br."). Delta argued that Doe's conduct was willful and in bad faith, and that dismissal of the Complaint was necessary because her failure to produce the requested materials had "severely prejudiced Delta in the defense of this action, and any lesser sanction would prove ineffectual." Def. Br. 10-11. Delta also sought an award of attorney's fees and costs from the inception of this action, again, based on Doe's non-compliance. Id. at 13-14. On July 29, 2014, Doe responded, arguing that she was justified in disobeying the Court's orders, including on grounds of privilege. Dkt. 61 ("Pl. Br."), at 11.[2] Doe alternatively stated that she would provide the requested records and releases after the parties entered into a confidentiality agreement. Id. On July 31, 2014, Delta filed a reply, Dkt. 64 ("Def. Reply Br."), accusing Doe of bad faith, on the grounds that she had earlier failed to submit a proposed confidentiality order, as the Court had directed her to do during a June 5, 2014 telephonic conference.

Delta's motion for sanctions remains pending. As more fully developed below, Doe produced the requested records and releases only after the Court had convened an in-person conference - at which Doe's counsel admitted that there was no bona fide basis for Doe not to comply with these orders - and had issued a sixth order demanding compliance.

C. Details of the Court's Discovery Orders Directed to Doe

The following is a history of the relevant discovery disputes and the Court's orders.

1. June 9, 2014 Order

On March 21, 2014, Doe, during her deposition, stated that, before her arrest, she had taken one pill of Flexeril[3] and consumed two glasses of white wine. Dkt. 56, Ex. B, at 3, 7.

On April 8, 2014, Delta served a document request on Doe. Dkt. 32, at 2-3. It included a request for medical records and/or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ("HIPAA")-compliant releases for all providers who prescribed medications Doe was taking on September 8, 2012. Id. On May 13, 2014, Doe objected to the request and refused to provide the medical records, arguing that she had not claimed any physical injury in her lawsuit. Id. On May 19, 2014, Delta filed a letter, seeking a conference with the Court to resolve the dispute. Id.

On June 5, 2014, the Court held a telephonic conference with the parties, and ruled on the dispute. The Court directed Doe to produce the pharmaceutical and medical records that Delta sought. Dkt. 35. The Court explained:

[I]t is clear to me that the medical records that Delta is seeking pertaining to [Doe's] prescription medications should be produced. [Doe's] claims in this litigation put her health and medical history squarely at issue. [Doe] claims she was on only one medication on the day of the incident and that Delta erroneously prevented her from boarding a flight on the ground that she was intoxicated. Those are [Doe's] claims. By making those assertions, [Doe] has fairly opened the door to questions about her medication usage, her medical history in general. These issues also quite rightly bear on damages. In any event, Delta should certainly have the opportunity to explore potential defenses to [Doe's] claims arising out of this nucleus of facts or to explore their impact on theories of damage.

Dkt. 42, at 6.

On June 9, 2014, the Court issued an order memorializing its rulings during the June 5, 2014 Conference, including its directive to Doe to produce the pharmaceutical and medical records and releases that Delta sought. Dkt. 35.

2. July 1, 2014 Order

On June 17, 2014, Doe submitted responses and documents to Delta, pursuant to the Court's June 9, 2014 Order. However, she did not provide the requested medical releases, but instead unilaterally decided to give authorization solely for pharmaceutical records related to one drug, Flexeril. Doe also raised new objections to the medical record requests. Dkt. 38, at 2. On June 19, 2014, Delta sent a letter to Doe, seeking complete releases by June 23, 2014. Id. Doe did not respond. On June 24, 2014, ...

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